Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Cabin fever

It's been raining all day and Chloe and I are dreaming about getting back out and walking tomorrow. Until then, here are some wildflowers to remind us that there's a world outside this studio. Giant hound's tongue (Cynoglossum grande) setting some of it's lovely orange seed capsules and hosting a Silvery blue (Glaucopsyche lygdamus), both spotted in a meadow a few days ago, along with a solitary Parasola plicatilis  mushroom a few feet away.

 Red larkspur (Delphinium nudicaule), one of my favorites. There's a patch I've been watching at Howarth Park whose leaves have barely emerged from the ground so this one took me by surprise in a rocky quarry area I've only recently started visiting. I drew it as a group of children practiced their archery in Camp WaTam. As the arrows began flying about the area I felt that I'd better wrap up and leave sooner than later.

 There are some lovely wood orchids that bloom in late spring and early summer at Howarth Park. By the time the flowers appear, the leaves are usually gone, so I wanted to sketch some while they're still there. I had hoped the leaves might help me with identification but I don't think they will, though I enjoy finding them. I've been amazed at how many end up as food, probably for deer. I see them one day, then go back and find just a stub coming out of the ground. Speaking of deer food...

...Fritillaria afinis  aka Checker lily and Chocolate lily  appears here and there in the park, too. I saw this one, ready to bloom, and came back the next day to sketch it, only to find it beheaded and a nice little deposit of deer scat nearby to tell me who had committed the crime. It seemed only fair to go ahead and sketch the headless plant. My paper still wasn't tall enough for the whole plant so the very top is shown on the right side of the page. Later I did a fast sketch of some flowers on another in a different part of the park.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

A new acquaintance

One of the best ways to see birds is to sit quietly in a place that they like to visit, usually for food. One of my favorite places to do this is Santa Rosa Oddfellows Cemetery. It's an open, grassy place with a mix of native and non-native trees in a central area. I can spend hours in shade or sun and observe the comings and goings of songbirds stopping by to forage on the ground or in spruce, oak and an old, gnarly Peruvian pepper tree (Schinus molle). There are also some hawks that hunt the area, Northern flickers (Colaptes auratus) in winter and American crows (Corvis brachrhynchos) and Western scrub jays (Aphelocoma californica).

One gray winter morning I watched a juvenile White-crowned sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys) stop to rest in the pepper tree. A larger, shadowy figure appeared in my peripheral vision and piqued my curiosity. Even in the murky light I could see that the bird had a red head, not something I see on any of the birds that frequent our area. I crept closer and closer, until I could see enough detail to do some rough sketches to take home and use to help me identify this lovely and, to me, exotic bird. While sketching I noticed that the tree was riddled with neatly drilled holes in tidy rows, something I hadn't ever seen before. I hoped that the pattern might help me identify the bird making them.

Once home, I looked in my copy of Sibley's Guide to the Birds and was able to easily identify the bird as a Red-breasted sapsucker (Sphyrapicus ruber), a bird that drills neat rows and columns of holes in living trees and returns later to drink the sap and eat any insects that may have been attracted to the sap. This led me to hope that I might have another chance to see her. When I arrived the bird was working the tree as though she'd never left. Closer examination showed that the Pepper tree was neatly pierced up and down it's trunk and larger limbs. This bird had clearly been around for a while.

I've returned several times, at different times of day, and most of the time have found the sapsucker working the tree. The last time I was there, an Acorn woodpecker (Melanerpes formicivorus) flew in noisily and began drinking sap from one of the holes the Sapsucker had drilled. The Sapsucker immediately moved to another limb of the tree and waited. The intruder continued to drink for a few minutes then flew off. As soon as he was gone the Sapsucker returned as though nothing out of the ordinary had occurred.

 Surprisingly, this sapsucker was one of the least shy birds I've encountered. Each time I've gone to observe her I've been able to sit, as long as I like, very near where she's working. She checks on me every now and then but mostly keeps drilling. She often stops and appears to rest while watching the comings and goings of a Nuttall's woodpecker (Picoides nuttallii), several Lesser goldfinches (Spinus psaltria) and the occasional Yellow-rumped warbler (Setophaga cornonata) as they forage nearby.

Learn more about Red-breasted sapsuckers:

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Name that bird

Ruby-crowned kinglet
I'm no expert when it comes to identifying birds. I haven't been at it for very long and I look for birds in only a few locations near home so I've gotten to know the birds that frequent those places because I see them so often. One of the birds that I've learned to recognize easily is the Ruby-crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula), a winter resident here in Sonoma County. These small birds bounce energetically from branch to branch, seeking insects to eat. Although the males don't often display the red crown they're named for, I've been lucky enough to see and be impressed by a few. I've only heard recordings of their courting song but can easily recognize the harsh chipping sound of their call. You can hear both in this recording at All About Birds.

One morning in early March, as a very cold wind blew through Howarth Park, I found myself sitting in the sun in the middle of a meadow surrounded by bay, oak and manzanita trees, trying to get warm. A few birds drifted through the shrubs around me while American crows soared high above, dipping and banking in the wind and looking as though they were having some kind of fun. Out of the corner of my vision I noticed movement in a nearby shrub and raised my binoculars to see a bird that I thought was probably a Ruby-crowned kinglet. I watched it as it moved from shrub to tree and back again, singing "Pweep - Pweep - Pweep." loudly and repeatedly. Something about it just didn't seem right for the kinglet, but I couldn't clarify what made me feel that way so I made as many notes as I could  in order to mull it over later.

Hutton's vireo

At home I looked at the Ruby-crowned kinglet article at All About Birds. I looked at a few other pages, too, and read, on more than one of them, about the uncanny similarity between Ruby-crowned kinglet and Hutton's vireo (Vireo huttoni). By this time I'd listened to the Ruby-crowned kinglet sound recording and felt fairly certain that my hunch had been correct and the bird I'd seen wasn't a kinglet. I listened to the Hutton's vireo recording and knew I'd found my bird! Pweep!

Monday, March 5, 2012

Food for thought

Dining at top, various escape postures below
Mushrooms are gourmet fare for banana slugs so, in past winters, I've sometimes encountered banana slugs (Ariolimax columbianus) as I searched for fungi in Howarth Park. This year we've had less than half our usual amount of rainfall and I've found very few mushrooms and fewer slugs.

I also often come across scat that appears to be strategically placed, often on high rocks at high points along various trails or at trail intersections. Sometimes, there are more than one deposit. I have yet to hone my scat identification skills but have learned that some of the mammals that live in the park communicate via scat placement.

A few days ago, on a rocky trail I saw a banana slug. When I got closer I saw that the slug was eating a freshly deposited pile of dung. When I sat down to sketch the scene the slug began to move away from me and it's meal, rather quickly for a slug. I sat as quietly as I could until it finally circled around and headed back, stopping short of the dung and hunkering down to wait me out near the interrupted meal. I didn't like to keep it from it's meal and moved on after making a few sketches.
 Although dung isn't as yummy to banana slugs as fungi it's still a regular part of their diet along with seeds, roots, fruit, algae and carrion. In turn, slugs are eaten by crows, snakes, ducks, shrews, moles, salamanders, porcupines and the occasional human.
Hunkered down, waiting for the intruder (me) to leave.
You may have noticed that I refer to the slug as"it". Sometimes there's no way to tell the gender of creatures I encounter and sketch but banana slugs are hermaphrodites, able to act as either male or female. There are some who seem to think that slugs are sexy little beasts and study their sexual activities with what appears to be great zeal. Interested in knowing more? Follow these links for discussion and videos of the sex lives of slugs:
 Home of the Slug Love
North Coast Journal

Sexual escapades aside, banana slugs are still pretty fascinating:
San Francisco State University Department of Geography
National Parks Traveler
Birds Amoré